Urgent recall

Key findings
  • The food industry’s environmental impact in the UK alone costs £7.2bn a year.
  • The UK food industry is highly inefficient, using eight calories of energy to produce every one calorie of food.
  • Workers in the UK food system make up 11% of the UK labour force but are all paid less than the UK average wage.

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Photo credit:   John Carleton

December 19, 2014 // Written by:

Aniol Esteban, Programme Director; Interim Director of Operations
Stephen Devlin, Economist, Natural Resources
Griffin Carpenter, Economics Modeller, Environmental Economics
Thomas Dosch

What makes a food system successful? Historically, the criteria have been high output, low prices, and eradication of deficiency diseases. This understanding is outdated and needs redefining.

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A successful food system is one that delivers high wellbeing, social justice and environmental stewardship. This report identifies eight indicators, illustrating that such a food system will:

  1. have a neutral or positive environmental impact;
  2. be productive in its use of energy and other inputs;
  3. be diverse in species and genes;
  4. support good jobs;
  5. be dominated by short and simple supply chains;
  6. be composed of assets that are controlled by a wide and inclusive set of stakeholders;
  7. foster a positive and thriving food culture and the highest levels of public health;
  8. make food affordable to everyone.

Based on these criteria, the UK food system is failing:

Including adverse environmental impacts, the cost of obesity and subsidies paid through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we have estimated the total external cost of the UK food system to be between £11 billion and £26 billion. This means that our effective food bill is at least 12–28% greater than the price we pay at the till. The UK food system is failing, and with serious environmental, economic and social consequences.

To contrast with this picture, we sought examples from across Europe of where food systems are achieving the kind of success we have defined. There were many lessons to be learned from them.

With clear examples of where success has been possible, how have we become stuck in this food system that doesn’t work for either us or for the planet? Much of the answer lies in the wider socioeconomic system – persistent and growing inequality, grinding poverty, and enduring unemployment forces many to compromise on the quality and healthfulness of what they eat, propping up companies that provide these products.

The distribution of working hours – with most people either overworked or underemployed – forces households to seek time-efficiencies, opting for fast food and ready meals. The public policy fixation on economic outcomes, particularly GDP growth, crowds out alternative understandings of what matters for good lives. The non-monetary outcomes of systems, especially natural systems such as food and agriculture, are not used to the greatest advantage.

The dominant paradigm in which success is understood is outdated and flawed. Our food system is defective, because the way we understand it is defective. We need to address this so that we can manage our food system to support the greatest contribution to human wellbeing, in a way that is socially just and sustainable over time.


Food & Agriculture

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Urgent recall: summary report

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